A Legal Feeding-Frenzy Right Up the Food-Chain; the Horsemeat Scandal Has Raised Crucial Questions about the Security of Our Food Supply Chains and Has Major Implications for Business, Says Solicitor Sheraz Akram

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Byline: Sheraz Akram

Anyone for spaghetti bologneighs? While the horse meat scandal has been a god-send for wannabe comedians on the social networks, it has prompted a wave of criticism of retailers and major food brands.

What began as an isolated problem with one supplier has now become a political and economic problem as retailers and ministers alike struggle to deal with the crisis.

Big-name supermarkets and leading frozen meal supplier Findus have all found themselves at the eye of the storm after being found selling horsemeat, despite assuring us that they have stringent checks in place to test the quality of their food products. The saga has highlighted the difficulties in monitoring and securing a reliable supply chain, even for the biggest brands.

Nasty surprises in the supply chain are nothing new, as we saw when Apple, Dell and HP came in for a barrage of negative publicity when poor working conditions were uncovered at one of their Chinese suppliers, Foxconn.

One of the harsh realities of dealing with global supply chains is that it can be incredibly difficult to keep tabs on every single sub-contractor. In the case of Tesco, it had a number of controls in place to ensure the quality of its meat products, including regular audits and approved sub-contractor lists that are all British Retail Consortium accredited.

In fact, Tesco told the environment, food and rural affairs select committee that it carries out over 20,000 tests a year for quality and adherence to strict specifications.

It had visited the supplier that produced the burgers found to contain horsemeat three times in 2012 to audit its practices, yet it still slipped through the net. Investigations suggest the supplier in question had been buying in meat from an unapproved Polish supplier for as long as a year, and Tesco had no knowledge of this link in the chain.

Any supply chain relies on well-drafted contracts and a certain amount of trust between the parties involved and the supplier in this case has now lost lucrative contracts with a number of supermarkets.

But that by no means signals the end of the problem. The authorities are now considering whether there has been some kind of international conspiracy to substitute beef for the more cheaply produced horsemeat.

At the moment, investigations are focused on protecting public health and addressing understandable consumer concerns. But how long before we hear of procurement fraud? In legal terms, this could take a range of forms. Product substitution to the supplier is one possibility, as it is unlikely the buyer requested horsemeat in its product specification. Then there is the issue of product substitution to the consumer; would consumers have bought the product if they were aware of the substitution? Then there is the spectre of possible bribery and corruption. Who was aware of the product substitution? …